During the first lockdown, after the Covid-19 outbreak in The Netherlands, people were asked to refrain from ‘hamsteren’ (hoarding). This word appeals to the imagination of many people. A bit of research taught me that the word ‘hamsteren’ was first used during World War I, when there was a shortage of food, especially in poorer Amsterdam neighborhoods such as the Jordaan and Eastern Islands.
The Potato Riots
On June 28, 1917, there was not a single potato left in the Jordaan. Due to World War I, the importing and exporting of food had stagnated. When a ship full of potatoes was heard to be docked in the Prinsengracht, Jordaan women rushed to the vessel and plundered it. The ship’s potatoes were meant for the army, but the women wanted to feed their families. A series of protests followed, against stockpiling supplies and driving up prices. Women on the Eastern Islands of Amsterdam followed the example, by plundering warehouses full of potatoes, and workers decided to support the women by going on strike. I had never heard this story, despite being a woman, born and raised in the Jordaan.
The potato was brought to Europe from South America in the 16th century. At first, it wasn’t eaten as it was assumed that, like the plant, it was toxic. Instead, it was used to feed cattle, and eaten by the very poorest people. In the 18th century, slowly but surely, the Dutch habit of eating potatoes formed. Potato plants thrived in the Dutch soil and potatoes served as a solution for malnutrition and scurvy.
Within a few centuries, the potato became closely connected to Dutch identity. We produce eight million tonnes of potatoes per year, and the average Dutch person consumes 81 kilos of them annually. It is no wonder a Dutch person is also known as a p’tata in Suriname.
Well-to-do citizens had plenty to eat during World War I, and merchants had warehouses full of food supplies. For the common people, on the other hand, there was hardly any food; no potatoes, but no rice or bread either. And most Dutch people at that time didn’t really want to serve rice; they wanted their potatoes. The women of the Eastern Islands and the Jordaan were the first to sound the alarm about the situation and take matters into their own hands.
The food shortage during World War I was not limited to potatoes, food was scarce in general. But during the riots in Amsterdam, the potato became an icon. The potato is known as simple food, it represents ordinary people.
I find it fascinating how, in this part of history, the potato symbolises identity, class inequality, and feminism.